Reunited: From Ashburn to Arizona to Milwaukee, pitchers JB Bukauskas and Taylor Clarke together again

Pitchers JB Bukauskas and Taylor Clarke (not pictured), both hailing from Ashburn, Virginia, have found a familiar connection as teammates in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Familiarity breeds contempt, or so goes the saying.

Not for pitchers JB Bukauskas and Taylor Clarke. They’ve found that, when entering a new situation for the first time, perhaps it’s better to have someone you know on your side.

Bukauskas and Clarke both hail from the same hometown, Ashburn, Virginia, and the two are both pitchers within the Milwaukee Brewers organization. The Brewers will look to them among others as they retool their pitching staff following the trade of 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes and a season-ending injury to Brandon Woodruff.

While Ashburn may be a typical Washington D.C. suburb, the town of about 45,000 people isn’t historically a baseball hotbed.

“There’s not a ton of (major league) talent coming from that area, more so from our county,” Clarke said during a break in spring training last month. “Once you start branching out in Virginia there’s a little bit more. Me, JB and there’s not a lot of others that I know.”

Aside from Bukauskas and Clarke, Ashburn can claim only one other major league player, Conor Mullee, who pitched three innings for the Yankees in 2016.

This makes it all the more impressive that the two have made it to the majors and are on the same team. The 30-year-old Clarke, though, is a few years older than Bukauskas, 27, meaning they never played on the same squads growing up.

“I knew who he was,” Bukauskas said about growing up in Ashburn and seeing Clarke’s progression. “I’d probably went and watched him play, but I doubt he knew who I was.”

Bukauskas’s assumption was right: Clarke did not know who he was. But he did likely set a good example for a young, impressionable Bukauskas.

“I know it’s a cliche, but he let his performance do the talking for him,” Clarke’s coach at Broad Run High School, Pat Cassidy, said about his former player. “He was not a ‘Rah, rah, look at me’ guy.”

Clarke struck out 72 batters while walking only three in his junior year and posted a 10-1 record his senior year, helping lead Broad Run to a district and region championship, along with a state tournament appearance. Clarke won the 2011 District Player of the Year award for his performance.

“When you as a coach – and every guy on the team – knows when he takes a ball you have an outstanding chance to win the game, it takes a lot of pressure off you,” Cassidy said. “You knew you weren’t going to have to score five runs to win. You knew if you scratched a couple runs across that most nights that was going to be a win.”

As Clarke went off to play baseball at Towson University and the College of Charleston, Bukauskas started to make a name of his own as a flame-throwing right-hander.

“When he started getting a lot of hype out of high school, I always heard about him,” Clarke said.

Bukauskas went to Stone Bridge High School, playing under coach Sam Plank. During his three years at the school, Bukauskas accumulated 264 strikeouts with a 21-3 record and 0.88 ERA. Scouts from both college and professional teams routinely attended his games with the anticipation he’d be a high MLB draft pick.

“There was like 50 (radar) guns pointing from back behind home plate,” Plank said about one game. “That is insane.”

Bukauskas graduated high school in his junior year without allowing a single earned run that final season. Despite the expectation he could be a first or second round pick with a high signing bonus, he told teams not to draft him and enrolled at North Carolina.

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Clarke kept tabs on Bukauskas from afar while at the College of Charleston, then continued to watch as Clarke rose through the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system as a third round pick in 2015.

“I try to keep in touch with that area, there’s not a lot of ballplayers that come from that area so when there’s good ones you know about them,” Clarke said.

Bukauskas left North Carolina after three seasons and was the 15th overall pick in 2017 by the Houston Astros. Two years later, Bukauskas was traded along with other prospects to Arizona as part of the package for All-Star pitcher Zack Greinke.

Finally, the two Ashburn natives got to meet each other.

“It’s definitely interesting, and it makes you feel like you have a friend in the organization,” Bukauskas said about meeting Clarke.

While they were within the same organization, the two had to wait until spring training in 2021 to share a clubhouse. That’s when they started talking and became closer.

“We bonded over (being from the same town) a little bit,” Bukauskas said. “You feel like you kind of have a connection with somebody, especially coming into different teams. It almost felt like we knew each other and made things easier. We’re pretty good friends at this point. You play together with someone long enough and then you kind of have that extra little connection. It gives you a leg up.”

The two teammates shared the 2021 season with Arizona before Clarke was granted free agency at season’s end and became a Kansas City Royals pitcher. Bukauskas didn’t pitch in the majors during 2022, while Clarke had a solid season with the Royals, pitching to a 4.04 ERA out of the bullpen. During this spring’s Cactus League, the two found themselves teammates again in the Brewers’ clubhouse.

“It helps you get a little bit of familiarity seeing a friendly face,” Clarke said of being reunited with Bukauskas. “Baseball is a small world, how you reconnect.”

Bukauskas was bit by the injury bug last year and spent the majority of his season with the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate in Nashville, pitching to a 2.92 ERA across 37 innings. For two games in July and three in September, he pitched six scoreless innings in the majors and wants to become a presence in the Brewers’ bullpen.

“I was able to come in and work out at the facility (during the offseason), have the trainers and strength staff here, try to do everything I can to stay on the field,” Bukauskas said. “Last year I had a few little injuries, so I think that’s my biggest goal and what we tried to attack in the offseason to make sure I’m healthy.”

Heading into spring training, Bukauskas and Clarke weren’t guaranteed roster spots by any means, especially with Milwaukee’s abundance of pitching talent.

The two righties saw mixed results this spring. Clarke gave up four runs across one inning his first outing but lowered his spring ERA to 2.57 before suffering a right meniscus injury. Bukauskas had 10 strikeouts and one earned run allowed in his first five innings pitched before giving up four runs in an outing.

After pitcher Trevor Megill was placed on the injured list, Bukauskas was called up to the Brewers on April 3 and has posted a 2.08 ERA in four appearances. Through highs and lows, they’ve worked their way from Ashburn to the bigs and aren’t going to give in easily.

“The fact that (JB) keeps working, and keeps chasing greatness… you can see the confidence,” Plank said.

Cassidy, meanwhile, said the town of Ashburn has reasons to be proud beyond whatever happens on the diamond.

“He’s a tremendously talented guy, he’s (played) five years in the big leagues,” Cassidy said about Clarke. “He’s kind, friendly and good to people around him. When you talk to him, he’s still the same Taylor Clarke he was in school.”

David Bernauer DAY-vid BER-now-er (he/his/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

David Bernauer expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Bernauer has previously worked in the Phoenix Sports Bureau and TV Production & Graphics Lab, as well as interning with the Florida Collegiate Summer League. He is a contributing writer with The Sixth Man Show.